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A Peek At Basketball, How Head Trauma In The NFL


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.


SIMON: L.A. topsy-turvy with the Clippers now the top NBA team in town, while the Lakers try to pick themselves up with a new coach. And remember those three NFL quarterbacks who were knocked out of their games last week? A couple of them kept playing. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us now.

Good morning, Tom.


SIMON: And we are talking about three marquee names in the NFL, between Jay Cutler of the Bears, Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles and Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Jay Cutler and Michael Vick won't start this weekend. Alex Smith will, scheduled against the Bears. So after all these vows about pro football taking concussions seriously, what's going on here?

GOLDMAN: Well, the NFL is taking it seriously, I believe. It better, because it's being sued by more than 3,800 former players over the issue of head injuries. Late this week, in fact, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave a speech at Harvard all about safety and head injuries and possible further rules changes. So he remains dedicated to the cause.

The basic rule of new think with concussions is get the player the heck out of the game as soon as he gets hurt and don't let him returned until he's absolutely recovered. That can take, you know, a week or two or more.

But yes, Cutler and Smith seem to have violated that rule. They played after they reportedly suffered their concussive blow. Cutler reportedly didn't have symptoms for a while. Smith did, however, and, you know, he had immediate blurred vision that he played through.

The culture is still there, Scott. Bears old-school linebacker Brian Urlacher articulated that this week, saying, as he's said in the past, that he would lie about having a concussion to stay in the game.

SIMON: Yeah. And a report out this week by PBS and ESPN says the NFL paid disability benefits to NFL players in the 1990s and in the early oughts for mental health issues they said were related to head trauma. Why is that significant now?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, you know, as I mentioned, the NFL's being sued by those 3,800-plus players who allege the league denied long-term brain injury risks from football. The NFL claims it has updated its policy as research has evolved. And it has. And, in fact, first acknowledged in just the past few years that repeated concussions could lead to long-term mental impairment.

Those disability settlements that you mentioned could suggest that the NFL knew more than it's letting on. They were all awarded at a time when the league was denying the connection. One lawyer, at least, is calling this a smoking gun. We shall see.

SIMON: And I want to turn to basketball and draw you out about Royce White, the Houston Rockets rookie, a talented player. And he's in a standoff with his team right now.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, mental health is not often a topic discussed in big-time sports, but it has been with Royce White, who's been very open about his struggles with generalized anxiety disorder. He was drafted in the first round by the Rockets. A big part of his GAD is a fear of flying, tough for an NBA player because of the constant air travel during a long eight months season.

White and the Rockets appear to have worked out a deal, saying it was OK if White took the bus to some games. But White hasn't played yet this season. He's been fined for days. He misses practice or games and doesn't meet with a therapist instead. In an interview with ESPN, White says if it comes down to his health versus hoops, he'd be willing to walk away from the NBA. But he's reportedly meeting with the Houston general manager on Monday to try to sort things out.

SIMON: The L.A. Lakers have been struggling this early in the season. They won last night against Phoenix. They have a new coach who's supposed to join them - Mike D'Antoni. Now, it's one thing to take over for Mike Brown, but how do you step into the dream that Laker fans had that Phil would return?

GOLDMAN: Very carefully, which D'Antoni has done, because he's on crutches after knee replacement surgery. But, you know, he also doesn't seem daunted by the fact that the Lakers chose him over 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson. He had his introductory press conference Thursday. He implied a return to show time, that great fast-paced basketball show led by Magic Johnson with the 1980s Lakers. D'Antoni said the goal is 110 to 115 points per game, and only a few teams in history have averaged that. And guaranteed, they weren't as creaky and aging as these Lakers. They're slow, but Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol are seasoned vets. They're figure it all out with their new coach. I should add that when he had that press conference, he said he was heavily medicated for his knee, so maybe not responsible for what he said.


SIMON: And we will note they might be on the wrong side of town, 'cause the Clippers are the ones to watch now.

GOLDMAN: How about those Clippers? Young, hungry and deep, and they and the Memphis Grizzlies seem to be the cream of the crop in the Western division. But the operative phrase is right now, we've got a long way to go.

SIMON: Tom, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.